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Douglas Caddy

HBO Documentary "Ethel" to be shown on October 18, 2012

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Television Review

Cheerfulness Amid Calamity

By ALESSANDRA STANLEY

The New York Times

October 17, 2012

Ethel” is a loving, touching and sometimes mischievous tribute to Ethel Kennedy, 84, by her youngest daughter, Rory Kennedy, a filmmaker. It is presented as a “private look inside a highly public life” — and it should have been kept private.

Instead, “Ethel” is a documentary being shown on HBO on Thursday night that is tone-deaf and maddeningly incomplete. Watching it is a little like reading a classified report redacted by Dick Cheney — so much material is blacked out that it’s almost impossible to follow.

Rory Kennedy, who was born six months after her father’s 1968 assassination, surely meant well by putting the spotlight on the member of her family who was gutsy and fun-loving and didn’t drive paparazzi into a frenzy. If John F. Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, brought European refinement and reserve to the clan, Robert F. Kennedy’s Ethel was the less glamorous workhorse — and broodmare — who reinforced their Irish Catholic roots.

The film offers lots of charming clips of home movies that show Mrs. Kennedy as a spirited, athletic child and an extroverted tomboy in love with her college friend’s brother Bobby. There are many glimpses of her as her husband’s most indefatigable helpmate: trim, smiling, tanned in sleeveless Lilly Pulitzer-style shifts, always at his side during campaigns, Congressional hearings and civil rights marches, often with several children in tow. The images of her as a young widow, pregnant and veiled in black at his funeral, are etched in history.

But most of all the film is a painful reminder that Camelot ended with her husband’s death. It’s not just that the family’s mystique was washed away by too many scandals, exposés and unflattering biographies. The Kennedys were once artful curators of their myth; Rory Kennedy’s film suggests that the succeeding generations are spookily oblivious to their own public image.

Many of Mrs. Kennedy’s children participated in the film, telling stories about their mother to the camera with wry, oh-that-Mummy affection: So many cabinet secretaries were pushed into the pool at her parties at Hickory Hill, the family’s house in Virginia, that Uncle Jack (President Kennedy) intervened and told his prank-loving sister-in-law to stop. Besides children and guests, Mrs. Kennedy gave packs of dogs, horses, goats and, for a while, even a seal free rein in that storied, chaotic household.

Kerry Kennedy, the former wife of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, recalls with a knowing grin how her mother was a famously fast driver and scofflaw, and the film shows newspaper headlines about her speeding violations when her husband was attorney general in the early 1960s. “Mummy has a long history of dealing with cops,” she says with a smile.

That interview was filmed in 2011, before Kerry Kennedy was arrested after swerving into a tractor-trailer in Westchester County, N.Y., and driving off. She later explained that she had mistakenly taken a prescription sleep aid before getting behind the wheel.

That incident could not have been foreseen when the film was made, any more than Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is shown jovially describing his parents’ happy marriage, could have known that his estranged wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, would hang herself in the barn of her Bedford, N.Y., estate in May.

But the family has a long record of ruined marriages, premature deaths and horrifying car wrecks. So much of what is told as charming family lore — tales of foolhardy escapades and physical recklessness — in hindsight seems anything but harmless.

Rory and her siblings describe their mother’s childhood in the Skakel clan, a large, wealthy Irish Catholic family very much like the Kennedys — athletic, competitive, rambunctious, but without the iron discipline or intellectual rigor imposed by Joe and Rose Kennedy, Ethel’s father- and mother-in-law. There are old home movies of Skakel family dinners disrupted by firecrackers, and shots of brawny boys roughhousing. Mrs. Kennedy, interviewed in Hyannis Port, Mass., by Rory, recalls fondly how her daredevil brothers would travel from Greenwich, Conn., to New York City, not in the train but on top of it.

“Mummy is a Skakel,” Chris Kennedy says cheerfully. “And as a Skakel she inherited a healthy disregard for authority in all its forms.”

Unfortunately, many viewers will best know the name Skakel in connection with Michael C. Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy who was convicted in 2002 of the 1975 murder of a 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley, in Greenwich.

Early in the film some of the children gaily introduce themselves and their birth order, and one, Max, ninth, teasingly pretends he can’t remember how many siblings he has. But that’s an unsettling joke to viewers who are aware that 2 of Mrs. Kennedy’s 11 children are dead. David died of a drug overdose in 1984; Michael was killed while playing football on skis in 1997. Their deaths are not mentioned until the end of the film, sadly but quickly.

There is obviously a talent for compartmentalizing in this family, which may explain how the children of Robert Kennedy can talk blithely of periods that are imprinted in the public memory as times of calamity and also disgrace. The film makes no effort to reconcile the Kennedys’ mind-set with that of the American public, possibly because it is impossible to explain to outsiders.

Mrs. Kennedy, certainly, expresses no interest in reflecting on her family’s travails. She is bravely tight-lipped when asked about her husband’s death, and scornful when Rory presses her to share her feelings about some of the social causes he introduced her to.

“All this introspection,” she says gruffly, only half-kidding. “I hate it.”

There is no introspection in “Ethel,” and evidently even less self-awareness on the part of the director. But this family’s triumphs, tragedies and self-inflicted disasters are too well known to skirt. It would have been a kinder gift to Mrs. Kennedy to respect her instincts and, for once, reserve this attempt at spinning history for family and close friends.

Ethel

HBO, Thursday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Produced by Moxie Firecracker Films. Directed and narrated by Rory Kennedy; written by Mark Bailey; Ms. Kennedy and Jack Youngelson, producers; Veronica Brady, associate producer; Azin Samari, editor; Buddy Squires, cinematographer; Miriam Cutler, original score. For HBO: Sheila Nevins, executive producer; Nancy Abraham, senior producer.

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Saw it a few nights ago, just excellent. I didnt know she was still alive but she sure has a great deal of energy for someone who's 84. Made me wonder if politics was worth it for those guys. JFk died at 46, and RFK at 42. If they lived another 50 years (or even 40), think of what else they could have done. Hell, Castro's still kicking isn't he. Looks like he's the clear winner here when it comes to longevity.

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Saw it a few nights ago, just excellent. I didnt know she was still alive but she sure has a great deal of energy for someone who's 84. Made me wonder if politics was worth it for those guys. JFk died at 46, and RFK at 42. If they lived another 50 years (or even 40), think of what else they could have done. Hell, Castro's still kicking isn't he. Looks like he's the clear winner here when it comes to longevity.

Rodney why do have a photo of Harry Balafonte as your avatar?

Edited by Len Colby

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Rodney has had his posting rights suspended until an acceptable avatar is shown, or permission to use a non-standard avatar is granted.

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